RESTAURANTS ARE NOT solely about food, no matter how haute or haughty. Even the fanciest ones spend heavily on decor, location, trendy ingredients, "concept" and so on. But while the foodie-chasing establishments hog the spotlight, the Rodneys of the restaurant world are chugging along, not getting as much respect but keeping a lot of ordinary folks happy.
In Bethesda, the staff of the old Thai Place, which for years occupied the prow-fronted corner space that is now Sala Thai, is the latest Thai tag team to take over the half-basement space on Bethesda Avenue just around the parking lot from Thyme Square. Called Thai Corner, perhaps in homage to the old uptown Bethesda location, it can't be said to rival the neighborhood's best Thai kitchens (the chef's-own-recipes Sweet Basil, the light and fresh-flavored Napa Thai, etc.), but it has a down-home, eager-to-please style that counts for a lot, and a budget-minded menu that may count even more. And for those who frankly find "authentic" Thai food too strong, it's a safe haven.
It is certainly an attractive place, in shades of coffee and chocolate accented with a dull dark red, a gleaming bar at the back and banquettes with cut-velour roses. Its unexpected draw is a pretty little patio, which, thanks to its being a few steps down from the sidewalk, escapes much of the traffic noise.
Yum tuna, which was a signature dish at Thai Place, is a weird sort of retro-'50s Americana, a cross between lime-chili-dressed seafood and canned tuna salad, but it's still strangely happy-making. And it's a filling portion, while the more traditional beef and seafood yum salads are less generous with the protein. "Thai Corner crab cakes" are actually a kind of hybrid of summer rolls and seafood sausages, light and bouncy mousse wrapped in bean curd skins. Curries are light but intriguingly floral, as if dashed with rose water.
Stir-fried catfish with green beans and chili sauce is plain but satisfying. One of the most entertaining and least familiar dishes is the "peppery shrimp," good large prawns lightly battered and fried in a sweet-and-sour sauce with "sour cabbages" that actually turn out to be bread-and-butter pickles. Two eggplant dishes, one vegetarian and one with minced chicken (pad ma kur), featured Japanese eggplant so long cooked they were like custard, though somewhat bland. The "fresh green garden rolls" are just that, rigorously rabbity even with the dipping sauce.
The best dish tasted was a special, soft-shell crab in yellow curry with stir-fried vegetables. Pad Thai is relatively plain but pleasant. The twice-cooked boneless roasted duck (ped ka prow) is battered, which dilutes the flavor -- a virtue or not, depending on preference.
The one off-putting characteristic of Thai Corner's kitchen is a tendency to use much more oil than is usual around town, and far more than one sees in Thailand, where to pour so much into and out of the pan would be extravagant in the extreme. Be sure to urge heat on the staff; even dishes marked "hot and spicy" are at most mildly hot. Everything is MSG-free.
WHEN, AFTER 35 years in a strip mall in Rockville's Congressional Plaza neighborhood, Ambrosia Grille was forced out by redevelopment, some of its longtime regulars were disconcerted. But in its new space, about five minutes north of the Montgomery County government center and Rockville Metro station, Ambrosia is lighter and brighter (physically, that is, with its nearly bare white walls) and turning out the same unfussy, filling and affordable Greek and Italian fare that made it a family favorite back when Rockville was MoCo's modest middle-class back yard.
Like Thai Corner, Ambrosia has little truck with trends, or with spice. (The closest thing to trendiness at Ambrosia is the fact that the kitchen is "exposed," but so that the food can be handed straight out to the servers, not as performance art.) Among familiar appetizers is a chunkier-than-baba-ghanouj melitzanosalata; spanakotiropita, flaky spinach-cheese cigars; spanky garlicky skorthalia, a cross between mashed potatoes and potato salad; and taramasalata, the blended fish roe. Dolmathakia, rice-stuffed grapevine leaves, are nicely lemony (The appetizer rolls are meatless; dolmades, the larger ones, are here made with ground beef rather than lamb.) The entrees are generally on the substantial side. (The dinner salads are largish, too.) The moussaka is a very nice light version with custardy rather than heavy bechamel, as is the pastitsio (the original beef 'n' mac). The grilled gyro and souvlaki meats are, as is traditional, well-done but with nice flavor. Ditto the grilled chicken dishes (half or breast), which could probably stand a little extra time in the lemon marinade.
Among the best of the Italian entrees are the lasagna with spinach and veal parmigiana, which comes with a side dish of spaghetti. Marinara sauce is good but smooth rather than chunky and a little on the garlicky side. Linguini dishes with shrimp or clams (white or red sauce) are predictable, but the seafood is carefully handled.
Still, despite the lure of the dinners, Ambrosia's gyros, beef and lamb combos are hard to resist at $5. For even bigger appetites, the special platter, which combines a gyro with souvlaki and a few finger bites in addition, is twice the price for twice as nice. The pita bread at Ambrosia is plentiful and filling -- a thickish variety. (It's also used for white pizza, on the doughy side.) The feta and olives are fine. There are a few Greek wines, but consult with the staff: Some are much sweeter than their American counterparts.